Chinese speakers and the /ʒ/ sound

Quick note:  If you get the email of my blog posts, you may be finding some phonetic symbols getting altered for wrong ones. In which case please check back to the blog itself. And let me know…

So, Chinese speakers and the /ʒ/ sound ….. I was working on an online teachers’ pron course recently, where teacher Michael Frost perceptively described a bit of his experience, as follows, adding a question to which I responded. This post then finishes with his comment. Thanks Michael for allowing me to post this

Michael posted:

I sometimes go through the chart in an early lesson with a new group. Chinese learners are often sensitive about their pronunciation, so using the chart can be reassuring for them in the sense that it generally narrows down the sounds they need to work on to 3-5. The main difficulties are usually /ʒ/, /v/ and, if they are from the south of China, /n/ and /r/, both of which often become /l/.

To follow up, I do an activity where one student says a phoneme and the other points to it on the chart and says a word which contains the phoneme. Not the most exciting activity but the students find it useful and engaging.

After the sounds needing work have been identified, I pull out a couple of relevant tongue twisters or do some minimal pairs activities.

One question: does anyone have any good ways for explaining how to produce the /ʒ/sound? This is the most difficult sound for Chinese learners as it doesn’t exist in Chinese. I try to explain the mouth and tongue position and the fact that it’s a voiced sound, but the results are still mixed, hence most Chinese speakers have a tendency to say /ju:əli:/ for ‘usually’. Thanks!

Adrian’s reply

Hi Michael. I have suggestions for strategies for these sounds on my blog in the Story of Sounds. Please have a look there as the ‘Journeys’ are laid out in full. But one approach to / Ʒ/.
1. Play with /s/ and /z/. Have Sts notice voicedness by putting fingers to Adam’s apple. Run the sounds together to enhance sensation of turning voice on and off /ssszzzssszzzssszzz/ etc
2. Use fingers against your throat to create a ‘voice switch’. Touching throat is voice on ie /z/. Fingers away means voice off ie /s/. So you operate it with your fingers like a light switch!
3. Sts make either sound according to where you put your fingers (you are silent so they don’t copy you). So, now sts have gained control of the ‘voice button’. (My Button no 4!)
4. Now, put finger to lips in the gesture for silence, sshh (but don’t say the sound /ʃ/ yourself). Invite them to say the sound /ʃ/ which in most countries is a natural response. If that is not a natural response in China, then say the sound /ʃ/ for them. Now invite them to make it long / /ʃʃʃʃʃʃʃʃʃʃ/
5. Now with your hand gesture bring the voice switch in (Button no 4 again) inviting them to continue /ʃʃ/ but with the added the voice.  And of course  /ʃ/  + voice =  /Ʒ/. So they find themselves saying /Ʒ/. Point to the symbol of this new sound on the chart so they know it is a different sound and not just a fuzzy version of the same sound.

6. Now contrast /ʃ/ and /Ʒ/. First by indicating with the voice switch, then by pointing to the symbols on the chart.
7. Another tip. When they start to say example words with the new sound, have them say them very very slowly so they can see and feel internally what is going on. This works well for fricative sounds like this.

One point that is so natural to me that I always forget to point it out: I rarely have students repeat after me, but always have them discover the sound in themselves as a result of what I ask them to do. I make them explorers of their mouths.  If I want them to repeat after me, which is very rare, I say so. eg in step 4 above as a second option.

Michael’s comment

That’s a great approach, thanks very much Adrian! I love the voice switch idea, so simple and yet so effective. I will try it out on Thursday with my Elementary level class. I like the idea too of encouraging greater learner autonomy during pronunciation activities as it’s all too easy for the teacher to assume the role of authority during these stages of the lesson, and yet these are stages that are perhaps the most important for cultivating a sense of identity and confidence in using a second language.

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1 Response to Chinese speakers and the /ʒ/ sound

  1. Faye Thomas says:

    Hi! I teach Chinese students. The voice switch idea is an awesome idea. Chinese really have thick accents and these new approaches are a welcome idea to us teachers. I think repetition is very important so that they can get used to the sounds.

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